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Connecting Directly with Consumers

Reaching out in the real world and online
By Tamara Scully


Whether enticing customers to visit your farm, shop at your farm market or look for your label at the grocery store, farms of all sizes are finding that forging a direct connection with consumers is a must in today's marketplace. Branding your farm and its products is more important than ever, as consumers demand to know more about who is growing their food, where it is grown, and which growing methods are utilized.



PHOTO COURTESY OF GIGGS/MORGUEFILE.

Today, reaching consumers directly is more complicated than taking out a newspaper advertisement or sponsoring a Little League team. Social networking - Facebook, Twitter, blogs, foursquare, LinkedIn, community forums and other Internet-based services - provides a platform for telling your story and making your name known, but adds yet another task to the daily to-do list of farm chores. Customers may also want to order products online, and sites such as Farmer's Market Online (www.farmersmarketonline.com), and Farmigo (www.farmigo.com) exist to accommodate this need.

In addition to all this virtual reality, customers will want an "experience" once they physically arrive at the farm. Simply purchasing your produce may not be enough. Reaching customers through agritainment - dinners on the farm, hayrides and pick-your-own - or offering frequent buyers' clubs and promotions is now commonplace. The bottom line: Today's consumer wants more than a sales exchange when it comes to food.

New skills

How does one take time from actual reality to create a virtual one? Building a website, compiling an email contact list and creating a social networking page can all be done on a relatively small learning curve. However, sending out daily updates, keeping these sites fresh, current and interesting for repeat visitors, takes time and thought.

At Best's Fruit Farm, 2011 was the year they finally decided to create a website and connect it to a Facebook page in an effort to lure in new customers. In business for 67 years, this third-generation New Jersey farm is located just outside of a growing small town, on the fringes of suburbia. Regular, longtime customers come for bushels of peaches and apples in summer and fall, but winter and spring business was slow. And many newcomers to town weren't finding the farm store.


Customers at Beak & Skiff Apple Farms' country store.
PHOTO COURTESY OF BEAK & SKIFF APPLE FARMS.

Kim Best, who manages the farm's retail store, realized that creating a Facebook page for the farm could add "friends" and help generate renewed interest in the farm store. She posts about product availability, keeping everyone updated on peach ripening dates, the status of sweet corn and anticipated apple availability.

"I'm trying to put a little humor in it," Best said, rather than just relaying information. One feature is her "freaky fruit" spotlight, where fruit that formed a little oddly is displayed, generating comments and keeping followers updated as well as interested and connected to the day-to-day life on the farm.

Another social networking tool used by Best is an active community forum site. Best monitors the forum for posts about the farm, other area farms, farmers' markets or produce in general. For example, when the forum showed numerous posts about a lack of high-quality, fresh produce in the winter, Best used Facebook, as well as some print ads, to remind people that the farm was open all winter, featuring their own apples and fresh-pressed cider, and stocked with quality produce as well.

While they are still incorporating social networking and building their skills, Best's Fruit Farm has seen positive responses from old and new customers. Longtime customers, including some who no longer live in the area, post comments regularly. The number of new farm store customers, particularly younger moms, has increased recently, which Best believes correlates with the farm's social networking presence.

Online sales

Clarion River Organics is a small farmer-run cooperative that saw potential in direct consumer sales and overcame religious obstacles to make those connections. Nine farmers from the Old Order Amish community in Sligo, Pa., joined forces with Zeb Bartels, a local, non-Amish farmer with marketing know-how, to find and communicate with customers for direct sales.

"They had the knowledge and the capacity to grow lots of great organic vegetables," Bartels said. "They just needed help to get that product to market."


Bob Best Sr. (left) speaks to a longtime customer at Best's Fruit Farm, where the end of the peach season and the beginning of the apple season overlap.
PHOTO BY TAMARA SCULLY.

Today, Clarion River Organics has an active website, an online store, a community-supported agriculture program and a blog. The four-year-old cooperative has seen phenomenal growth, participating in numerous farmers' markets, boasting over 100 CSA members, managing an active online store and handling large wholesale accounts. The cooperative now has its own commercial kitchen, where the farmers can make value-added goods. CSA members are treated to on-farm days, where they meet the farm families, pick berries or melons and enjoy a potluck dinner.

Connecting with retail and wholesale customers has allowed Clarion River Organics to thrive. This direct connection between the Old Order Amish farmers and today's consumer was made possible via a virtual presence, seamlessly connecting this rural farm cooperative with nearby urban Pittsburgh-area consumers.

On-farm marketing

Beak & Skiff Apple Farms in New York is 100 years old, but it certainly isn't behind the times. The farm uses Twitter and Facebook and has an information-packed website. The farm also accepts online orders for some products. What the farm does best, according to Candy Beak Morse, who runs the retail operations with her husband Steve, is to "always try to put the customer first, and to make [the farm] the kind of place that they like to visit."

Formerly a wholesale-only operation, Morse and her husband joined the family apple business with the mission to add direct retail sales to the farm. Their first idea was to add a you-pick orchard, which brings in thousands of customers each season. But the first year was a wet, rainy disaster, with few customers. Realizing they needed an alternative for such seasons, they opened the country store, Morse said.

A small demonstration cider mill in the store led to the real thing, and Beak & Skiff's cider is now made in quantity and sold retail and wholesale. The popularity of the cider led to the newest additions at Beak & Skiff: a winery and distillery. Capitalizing on the growing popularity of local wine trails and tasting rooms, the farm attracted a whole new customer base.

Since the wine and beer are primarily sold on-site, it required additional effort to attract customers to the farm. A promotional program was implemented that offered a commemorative shot glass to customers who took to the "beverage trail" and had a card punched at each location on the farm. After a few years, the need to have a new design on the shot glass each season became apparent, as repeat visitors would return to get another glass to add to their collections.

"You have to always be changing. You have to differentiate yourself," Steve said.

Connecting without direct sales

Those who don't offer direct retail sales can also benefit by connecting with today's consumers. Telling the story of your farm brand, and painting a picture of your farm for customers - what you do and why and how you do it - can create loyalty, even if your customers don't directly visit your farm. Even wholesale farms can add a Web address to labels and keep the content of the website fresh, with updated recipes, tales from the farm, and a list of stores where products are sold. Social networking has a place here too, and will keep your brand fresh in consumers' minds, even when they're not in the grocery store.


Customers want an "experience" once they arrive at the farm.
PHOTO COURTESY OF BEAK & SKIFF APPLE FARMS.

Whether or not you sell to the public directly, social networking can connect your farm to your neighbors, providing a means of positively communicating information about your farm and its practices, the benefits farming can provide the community, and more. Consider an Internet presence an introduction to those who live locally, as well as a virtual invitation to the farm for those who live farther away. Engaging customers virtually bridges distance and forms connections, no matter your sales outlets.

From virtual to reality

At Best's Fruit Farm, customers indicated that they wanted other local products not produced at the farm. A nearby farmer was given space to bring in a freezer filled with USDA-retail cut meats, and a small dairy distributor now provides milk. These additions were announced on the farm's Facebook page.

Customers - many of them new to the farm - now stop in on the way home from work to pick up everything they need for dinner. The convenience of one-stop shopping made the difference.

The farm is thinking more creatively about how to use the space it has to appeal to its regular customer base. Selling at the town's farmers' market, located a mile from the store, attracted new customers who didn't know the farm was there, Best said. Some of these customers don't have cars, and must walk or bike to purchase food; they didn't go far enough to find the farm. Now many are making the effort.


Capitalizing on the popularity of local wine trails and tasting rooms, Beak & Skiff Apple Farms attracted a whole new customer base with its distillery and winery.
PHOTO COURTESY OF BEAK & SKIFF APPLE FARMS.

"The Hackettstown market is proving to be great for referrals, and we've gotten a lot of new, local customers," Best said. A second farmers' market, 15 miles away, helped the family reach those in nearby communities not served by a year-round farmstand. Distributing flyers that prominently display the farm's physical and virtual addresses helps to connect with old and new customers.


Clarion River Organics saw potential in direct consumer sales and joined forces with Zeb Bartels to find and communicate with direct-sales customers. "They had the knowledge and the capacity to grow lots of great organic vegetables," Bartels said. "They just needed help to get that product to market."
PHOTO COURTESY OF CLARION RIVER ORGANICS.

While virtual reality may help in finding new customers and keeping old ones connected to the farm, it is the reality that counts. Technology now allows growers to reach an ever-expanding population. Targeting your customer base, telling your farm story, defining your farm's values and, ultimately, selling your products, takes more time and effort than ever. Once that sale is made, building loyalty and repeat sales requires good old-fashioned customer service along with regular electronic updates.

Keeping consumers feeling connected to the farm requires that farmers do so much more than grow fresh food. Whether doing it yourself or hiring someone to do it, creating an ever-evolving virtual identity, as well as crafting an actual farm "experience" for direct-market sales, is almost as necessary as planting those seeds each season.

The author is a freelance contributor based in New Jersey. Comment or question? Visit www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.